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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                     99
veered to the side and then climbed up. He ordered
Kukushkin to veer and bail out. But at that moment
Kukushkin reduced his gas and prepared to land. His
plane with the broken wing dashed right over Alexei's
head and rapidly neared the ground. It abruptly heeled
over to port, landed on its sound "leg", taxied a little way
on one wheel, reduced speed, heeled over to starboard
and, catching the ground with its sound wing, spun round,
raising clouds of snow.
When the clouds of snow subsided something dark was
seen lying near the crippled plane. Men came running
towards this dark object, and, sounding its siren, an
ambulance car dashed towards it.
"He saved his plane! So that's the kind of man Kukush-
kin is! When did he learn to do that?" thought Meresyev,
lying on the stretcher and envying his comrade.
He felt an urge to run with all his might to the spot
where lay this little, universally disliked fellow who had
proved to be such a brave and skilful pilot. But he was
bound to the stretcher and fettered by excruciating pain,
which overwhelmed him again as soon as the nervous
tension relaxed.
All these events took no more than an hour, but they
had been so numerous and swift that Alexei had not
been able at once to analyse them in his mind. Only when
his stretcher had been fixed into the special sockets in the
Red Cross plane and when he again happened to catch
the fixed stare of the "meteorological sergeant" did he
really appreciate the significance of the words that had
escaped the girl's pale lips during the bombing. He was
ashamed to think that he did not even know the name of
this splendid self-sacrificing girl.
"Comrade Sergeant," he called softly, looking at her
with grateful eyes.
It is doubtful whether she heard him amidst the roar
of the engine, but she stepped forward and held out a
small packet, saying:
"Comrade Senior Lieutenant, these are letters for you.
I saved them because 1 knew that you were alive and that
you would come back. I knew it, I felt it."
She placed the small batch of letters on his chest.
Among them he saw several from his mother, folded in